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Visual art in the Middle East has long suffered a kind of legitimacy deficit. Even today, if you grab someone off the streets of Cairo, Beirut or Ramallah and ask them what qualifies as fine art, he or she will likely tell you poetry or music over painting or photography. Video and installation may be celebrated in rarefied art spaces, but they have not penetrated the popular imagination. A few years ago, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, a critic and essayist who specializes in the intellectual history of Arab modernity and who directed the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah for nearly a decade, wrote a remarkably clear-sighted paper for the European Cultural Foundation assessing the successes and failures of contemporary arts initiatives in region. She noted that much work remained to be done in terms of increasing access and exposure "to the visual arts, which do not enjoy the dominant lace that literature does in Arab high culture, or that music occupies in Arab popular culture."
If visual art is engaged in an uphill battle, then the history of visual art is facing an even steeper climb. The past ten years have witnessed tremendous changes in the cultural landscapes of several Arab cities. Independent infrastructures for the production and presentation of new work have taken hold in Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Amman and Ramallah. Experimental art spaces have opened, or are soon scheduled to open, in Algiers, Rabat, Tangier, Damascus, Jerusalem and Manama. Events such as Photo Cairo, the Home Works Forum in Beirut and the Sharjah Biennial have become serious platforms for the development of contemporary art practices with a critical edge. At the same time, Western interest in Middle Eastern art has increased significantly, and several large-scale cultural institutions are planned for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.
In the midst of all of this change, it is no surprise that the history of modern Arab art has suddenly become an urgent field of inquiry. Walid Raad’s follow-up to the long-term project known as the Atlas Group is an exploration, proceeding in stages devoted to different locations and contexts such as Beirut and Abu Dhabi, into the history of modern and contemporary Arab art. Maqam, a gallery in Beirut that opened in early 2009, is devoted to revisiting the history of Lebanese art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nada Shabout, the author Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, has dedicated much of her recent scholarship to the modern heritage of Iraq to counteract the (often specious and superficial) accounts of foreign correspondents making assertions about, say, the role of abstraction in Iraqi art while covering the US-led invasion and occupation of the country.
But nowhere are the stakes of art history higher than in the field of Palestinian art, in part because the writing of any history in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inevitably becomes a politicized act, where the assertion of one side’s narrative is too often the erasure of the other’s.
Clocking it at more than 300 pages, and illustrated throughout with full-color reproductions of rarely seen artworks spanning a century and a half, Kamal Boullata’s groundbreaking new book Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, is a crucial read for anyone interested in the visual culture of the Arab world. At the core of Boullata’s book is a collection of essays he has written over the past 20 years and published in academic journals and exhibition catalogues in Arabic, English and French. Many of the texts have been substantially updated and revised for the current publication, and Boullata has arranged them in a manner that both beautifully and painfully replicates the fragmentation of his subject matter.
Whether they live in cosmopolitan cities or squalid refugee camps, in Israel or the Occupied Territories, in the Arab world or in the West, Palestinian artists today are scattered, making coherent art movements almost impossible. Moreover, the youngest of these artists have few opportunities to engage the works of those who came before, as so many archives, museums, cultural centers and galleries have been closed, appropriated, ransacked or destroyed. Playing with distance and proximity and insisting that the book can be read either sequentially or in parts, Boullata uses the structure of his book to reinforce his theory of how the visual language of Palestinian artistic expression has developed over the past 150 years.
Divided into four sections that follow a moving introduction by John Berger, Boullata’s book details three major hinges in the history of Palestinian art. The first and most substantial is the transition from religious iconography to secular painting, which takes up the first part of Palestinian Art. With the arrival of easel painters, quality art supplies and photographers eager to capture the Holy Land on glass plates and sell the prints to tourists and residents alike, painters such as Nicola Saig, Khalil Halabi, Mubarak Sa’ed and Daoud Zalatimo, who had trained primarily with Russian Orthodox iconographers (Sa’ed, meanwhile, was tutored at a Roman Catholic convent), began experimenting with landscapes, portraits, still lifes and pictorial depictions of historical narratives that had been passed down (and embellished) through the verbal art of storytelling.
This occurred with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the British Mandate in Palestine, and culminated in 1933 with an exhibition by Zulfa al-Sa’di, who was chosen to represent Palestine in the First National Arab Fair in Jerusalem. She exhibited a series of landscapes, portraits and still lifes, many of which were based on photographs that were well known at the time. The show was a huge hit, and this, according to Boullata, "marked an unprecedented endorsement of an art form heretofore unrecognized as a means of personal expression … an art form that, until then, had been tolerated, but not deemed worthy enough to represent national culture."
The second hinge in Boullata’s book concerns the split among Palestinian artists between figurative and abstract painting. This took place in Beirut in an era bookended by 1952, when the revolution in Egypt knocked Cairo off its high cultural perch, and 1982, when the Israeli invasion staunched the free flow of ideas that had made the Lebanese capital, in Boullata’s words, "the metropolis of Arab modernity" for three consecutive decades. Parliamentary governments collapsed in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. With the war in 1967, another wave of Palestinian refugees surged northward. The aerated nature of Lebanese state made room for dissidents, intellectuals and innovators of all sorts. "During three eventful decades in which the region seethed with social and political upheaval, Beirut served as a lighting rod for all the political movements erupting in the Arab world since Palestine’s fall," writes Boullata.
Two distinct schools of Palestinian art emerged. On one hand, painters who grew up primarily in the camps fine-tuned a style of figurative painting that illustrated key moments in the Palestinian nationalist struggle, embodying triumph and tragedy at once. On the other hand, painters who lived and worked in the city’s cosmopolitan circles tended toward abstract canvases that refracted more cerebral, interior and highly individualized experiences and ideas.
The third hinge is the shift from traditional to new media exemplified by a handful of exhibitions organized in Ramallah in 2001 and 2002. The show "100 Shaheed – 100 Lives," curated by Adila Laïda-Hanieh for the Sakakini center, featured 100 everyday objects – an unfinished piece of embroidery, a key chain, a candle holder – that belonged to 100 civilian victims of the Israeli incursion. The show "Eyewitness," staged in the basement of Ramallah’s municipality building, featured objects from homes, offices and hospitals that had been vandalized during the military operation. "To brave the siege, and assert their freedom, [Palestinian artists] had to break loose their imagination and work hand in hand amidst the devastating reality that was unfolding before their eyes," writes Boullata. "Overnight, visual artists had all been prepared to abandon their usual tools of expression and find any means readily available to express their solidarity with their people with whom they were engulfed by death and despair … The necessity of what may stand for art was thus asserted as an expression of survival."
Boullata’s book is undeniably important and in many respects unprecedented. The author is a well respected painter who lived through and played a major role in several of the historical episodes he describes (he was the only painter of his generation to apprentice with Khalil Halabi, one of the religious iconographers who segued into secular painting, and he was one of four painters on the editorial board of Mawaqif, a magazine that helped crystallize the abstract school of painting that forked off the figurative school in Beirut). As Laïda-Hanieh points out: "In the specific Palestinian context … only a Palestinian who witnessed and participated in its important historical periods or who has researched so meticulously its past is able to document and conceptualize this history."
But it is worth noting that some of the notions on which Boullata’s book in built – the primacy of national identity, the belief that artistic expression constitutes a national culture and the authority of history written as a linear, chronological account – are precisely those that many contemporary artists in Palestine, as elsewhere, are now challenging and deconstructing in their work. It will be interesting to see how they respond. If Boullata’s book pushes other artists, researchers and scholars to write their own alternative histories, then Palestinian Art will have done at great service for all involved.
Beirut-based writer. She is a contributing editor for Bidoun and writes regularly for The Daily Star, Artforum and Frieze.
Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present
By Kamal Boullata
270 x 220 mm
Publisher: Saqi Books